Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Travelling Doll Wonder: Dickens, Secular Magic, and Bleak House

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Travelling Doll Wonder: Dickens, Secular Magic, and Bleak House

Article excerpt

In summer 1849, a small group gathered at Winterbourne House at Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight to watch a conjuring show by "The Unparalleled Necromancer Rhia Rhama Rhoos," a magician apparently "educated cabalistically in the Orange Groves of Salamanca and the Ocean Caves of Alum Bay" (Forster 89-90). The show promised a number of amazing set pieces, all of them 'wonders': "The Leaping Card," "The Pyramid," "The Conflagration," "The Loaf of Bread," "The Pudding," and "The Travelling Doll" (Forster 90). The audience watched the conjuror as he made two cards selected by the audience and replaced in the pack leap forth at his command; another card was selected, named by the conjuror, set on fire, and then reproduced from the ashes; another audience member's card was locked in a box and then materialized in the middle of a freshly cut loaf of bread. It is unlikely that many in the audience would have known the means by which these effects were achieved; it is certain, however, that they knew the true identity of the unparalleled necromancer Rhia Rhama Rhoos, who was none other than Charles Dickens. In this article, I consider the connections between Dickens's fiction and the art of conjuring, what Simon During calls "secular magic" (1)--that is, magic that makes no claim to the supernatural, as opposed to magic in its supernatural or anthropological guises. I consider Rhia Rhama Rhoos's routine 'The Travelling Doll Wonder' as a paradigm for reading Dickens's fiction, and Bleak House in particular, arguing that Esther's doll, an uncanny subject/object that disappears and reappears at crucial points of the text, is informed by Dickens's own performance with a disappearing doll that raises similar questions of perception and subjectivity. My wider aim is to demonstrate that what John O. Jordan calls "the Bleak House effect"--that is, "the novel's way of luring its characters (and its readers) to imagine things that might have been but never were or that exist only in their minds" (147)--can be understood in the context of a similarly hyperphenomenological cultural practice with which Dickens engaged during the composition and publication of the novel, that is, secular magic. I argue that Dickens's interest in performance magic functions metacritically in his work, especially in Bleak House, and furthermore that while the enchantment of conjuring underpins the novel, Bleak House also draws attention to the traumatic component of secular magic. Although not traumatic in itself, the experience of conjuring resembles, in Cathy Caruth's phrase, the unclaimed experiences of trauma, and it is in Bleak House that Dickens explores the connection between these discourses.

Dickens's interest in performance magic is well evidenced in his novels, letters, and performances. As John Forster records, he was a keen observer of such performances in both England and France; for instance, on May 3, 1853, Dickens invited Frank Stone to accompany him to a performance given by the influential French conjuror Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin at Sadlers Wells (Letters 7: 76). Such performers became the addressees, and subjects, of his writing; Dickens corresponded with magicians, in particular the hugely popular Austrian conjuror Ludwig Dobler (Letters 4: 113-14), and depicted humbler conjurors in his fiction. Sweet William, one of the travelling showmen in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), makes his living through card tricks and various other conjuring routines (150-51); in Dombey and Son (1844-46), Paul Dombey's roommate Tozer is taken by his uncle to see a conjuror, an occasion the uncle ruins by turning it into a classics examination (251). Similarly, in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44) the card tricks performed by Jonas become a metaphor for his double dealing with Charity and Mercy Pecksniff (242). Household Words, too, carried writing on magic; the edition of April 9, 1859, granted its front page to Saul Dixon's extensive review of the English translation of Robert-Houdin's Memoirs (1859). …

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